Park’s Blue House used NIS cash for survey before 2016 general election

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Park’s Blue House used NIS cash for survey before 2016 general election

The Park Geun-hye Blue House used money diverted from the country’s main intelligence agency to finance a public opinion poll before last year’s legislative election to assess the competitiveness of her allies, the prosecution said Wednesday.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has been investigating allegations that officials from the Park Blue House routinely received money from the special expenses accounts of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The prosecution arrested two former Park secretaries, Ahn Bong-geun and Lee Jae-man, earlier this week on charges of taking the money.

About 4 billion won ($3.59 million) was transferred during the four years of the Park presidency, the prosecution claims. Ahn, Lee and Jeong Ho-seong, another key associate of Park currently undergoing a separate criminal trial, were accused of receiving the money. They are known as the three “doorknobs” who controlled access to Park during her presidency.

Prosecution sources said Lee admitted during questioning that he had received the money at the order of Park. “Whenever the president made a request, I took the money and passed it to her,” he was quoted as saying.

The prosecution said Wednesday that it uncovered a new charge. About 500 million won of NIS money, separate from the routine payments that Lee and Ahn received, was used to finance a survey commissioned by the Park Blue House, it said.

“We are looking into the NIS on charges of embezzlement and causing loss to state coffers and former presidential officials on charges of violating the election law,” a prosecution source said.

An NIS official recently told prosecutors that the Blue House conducted an opinion poll for some primary candidates of then-ruling Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, before the April 13, 2016 legislative election. The Blue House commissioned a polling company to conduct the survey but did not pay the bill. A Blue House official later received 500 million won from the NIS and made the payment, the prosecution said.

At the time, the Saenuri Party was having an internal war between Park loyalists and her adversaries over who would get party tickets for the elections. Hyun Ki-hwan, then-senior secretary for political affairs of the Blue House, oversaw the opinion poll, prosecution sources said.

“It was the Blue House’s belief that Park loyalists must win as many seats as possible for her to keep political control as the presidency entered its fourth year,” a Liberty Korea Party official said. “It probably conducted the opinion poll secretly to determine the competitiveness of her loyalists.”

The prosecution suspects that the Blue House conducted the poll using the NIS money in order to avoid criticisms that it was intervening in the election.

According to prosecution sources, the Blue House asked the NIS in August 2016, four months after the legislative election, to hand over the money for the opinion poll. An official from the Blue House received a bag of cash, worth 500 million won, and delivered it to the polling company, the sources said.

Lee Heon-su, former strategy and planning chief of the NIS, hand-delivered the money to the Blue House official, the sources said. The contact was reportedly made at the Bugak Skyway, a scenic driving route near the Blue House. The prosecution suspected that the location was selected because of its seclusion and proximity to the Blue House.

The prosecution raided the polling company on Tuesday and questioned its head about the deal.

“The Blue House appeared to have used the NIS money because the poll was not a legitimate survey on the president’s performance,” said Kim Han-kyu, former head of the Seoul Bar Association. “It is highly likely a violation of the election law, which bars public servants’ interventions in politics and elections.”

Another lawyer, Hwang Jeong-geun, has a different take. “An election law violation requires an act that actually affected the outcome of the election,” he said. “A survey of candidate competitiveness cannot be an election law violation.”

The prosecution said whether it is an election law violation or not, the act is prosecutable.

A former official from the Park Blue House said it was following a long-held tradition. “All offices of the past presidents conducted polls before general elections,” he said. “It wasn’t the first time that the NIS’s special expenses accounts were used to finance the surveys.”

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